Moving from transaction to engagement

By / July 25, 2017

Illustration depicting change from overwhelmed member to engaged member

By Justina Li and Galen MacLusky | Illustration by Melissa Phachanhla

Credit unions are facing a common problem. In the process of establishing themselves within the financial services industry, the variety of products and services they offer has grown. From cheque cashing services to daily banking accounts to mutual fund management, it seems as though there’s something for everyone.

However, many of the institutions that we have worked with struggle with getting members to engage with all that they have to offer. Members only use a handful of their portfolio of products and services—often the most basic ones, like depositing and withdrawing from regular chequing accounts. As well, members are going to other institutions like payday lenders and national banks to meet their broader needs.

There is a clear gap between what members really need and what credit unions offer, and it’s leaving some members — particularly those who are struggling financially — disengaged with their credit unions. At Bridgeable, we partnered with Credit Human, a San Antonio-based federal credit union, and the Common Cents Lab, a team of world-class behavioral researchers, to close this gap. Through the process of designing a financial management app for their members, we addressed this question:

What are the unmet needs credit unions should address with their products and services to better engage with their financially struggling members?

We delved deep into the perspectives of Credit Human’s financially struggling members through interviews and participatory sessions, and we uncovered three real needs in their lives that go beyond many of the financial products with which they currently engage:

  1. Members needed help making the day-to-day spending decisions.
  2. Members needed help preparing for the unexpected.
  3. Members needed help knowing when they can save.

By addressing these unmet needs, we believe that financial institutions can move from transactional relationships to engagement, driving financial security and growth for both credit unions and their members.

Help members make day-to-day spending decisions easier

“There are so many things on my mind and so little time that I can’t make the best-informed spending decisions. Because I don’t have a lot of money, making an unwise spending decision could cause a lot of trouble that’s hard to escape.” – Credit Human member


Financially struggling members think about their money and their spending all the time. So often, in fact, that it does more harm than good. The cognitive overload caused by living in scarcity leaves them with less time, less energy, and less willpower to make good decisions.

With all that they juggle—like rent, loans, and overdue bills—members are looking for a way to cut through the noise. They need help distilling and simplifying this information, without relinquishing the control that gives them confidence in their financial lives. They need help making their day-to-day spending decisions easier, and this is where credit unions can come in. Where members are struggling with complexity, credit unions can give them simplicity.

Making day-to-day spending decisions easier is the core value of the app we developed with Credit Human and their partners. The app collects a member’s income and expenses with their bank account data, using this information to calculate a spending amount which we called the Sweat-Free Amount. By checking this number instead of their account balance, members don’t have to worry about subtracting upcoming bills (and remembering them all) to know if they can make a purchase.

Of course, this isn’t the only way that credit unions can help ease day-to-day spending decisions. By continuously listening to member needs and designing solutions with them in mind, we can provide real value and build engagement.

Help members prepare for the unexpected

“My world is rocky and unpredictable, but I’m not prepared for the times I will have less. When the unexpected income loss or bill hike hits, I find myself trying to dig out of financial trouble.” – Credit Human member


Financially struggling members also struggled with being blindsided by expenses that they didn’t anticipate. Nearly every member that we spoke to had a story about a time that a broken muffler, a clogged toilet, or a medical bill derailed their plans.

For these members, any unexpected expense can be the tipping point into debt. Although it’s clear that a financial cushion would help alleviate these unexpected expenses, accurately predicting and anticipating these variable costs is a challenge. This is a powerful opportunity to help members help themselves. Credit unions might leverage transaction data to find trends about these expenses, or help members build their financial cushions proactively.

We baked multiple elements into the Sweat-Free Amount to help avoid unplanned expenses.

Income – Bills and Expenses – Bill Buffer – Savings = Sweat-Free Amount

To prevent upcoming expenses from being forgotten, we used prompts in the Bills and Expenses input screen to invite members to reflect on and include them. Adding a bill lowers the Sweat-Free Amount automatically, helping members set aside money effortlessly.

We further padded this financial cushion with a Bill Buffer. Set up as a float for the member, the Bill Buffer covers fluctuations in bills and other short-term expenses.

By accounting for the forgotten and the unknown, we helped financially struggling members reduce the risk of being derailed by unexpected expenses. Additionally, by helping them make smarter day-to-day spending decisions, we created the opportunity to help members save for the long-term.

Help members know when they can save

“I live paycheck to paycheck, and although I know I should save and I want to save, I feel like I can’t. I don’t know how to start saving. Without savings, I have little security and no room for aspirations.” – Credit Human member


In our interviews with financially struggling members, we heard again and again that they knew how important it was to save, but doing so was much easier said than done.

This inability to save is partly because some members have trouble recognizing when they can save. For those with variable income and expenses, there’s often a pattern of feast and famine — of spending when there’s more money and cutting back when there’s less money. During periods of abundance, credit unions can help members put that extra money aside.

We integrated this insight about saving into our tool. By leveraging transaction data and the Sweat-Free Amount, we could identify moments where members could save. If there was a surplus of Sweat-Free money left unspent, if income was higher than usual, or if expenses were lower than usual, we invited the member to “sweep” this money into savings with the touch of a button.

Having prompts and reminders of the opportunity to save gave members the control they desired, but also provided a valuable opportunity for them to make the choice to save, not spend.

How will you build engagement?

Interestingly, many of the products that we see offered to credit union members only touch on the last opportunity we discussed here. However, the financially struggling members we worked with had other needs that went beyond savings products. It’s no wonder that many low-income members struggle to engage when their core day-to-day needs aren’t being met. With that in mind, the case study we examine here is only one approach to addressing these needs. We’d love to hear about any approaches that you take in helping make day-to-day spending decisions easier for members, helping members plan for the unexpected, and helping members know when they can save. How will you address these needs and move members from transactional relationships to meaningful engagement?

Download Using Design to Deepen Relationships in the Financial Sector eBook

Download our eBook for more insights on using design in the financial sector, including:

  • How we worked with a federal credit union to better engage with their low-income members
  • Why agility is a better bet than digitization when it comes to our changing financial ecosystem
  • How using design sprints can produce results and reduce risk